Covid-19: Recovery Strategies - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:24 pm on 11th June 2020.

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Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 2:24 pm, 11th June 2020

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests and I start, as others have started, by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on obtaining this debate, which has produced such excellent speeches. Of the subjects she raised, I shall focus on fairness. Without seeking to detract in any way from the horror of the disease, I note that Covid has helped to expose the lack of equality that exists between different sections of our society. There is the black minority and other discriminated minorities, the disabled, the elderly and the deprived members of our society, and indirectly there is the education of our children. Individually and cumulatively, these consequences are not only unfair but arguably result in contraventions of the Human Rights Act and damage society.

When I was a High Court judge, a small book was produced and made available by the Government with the title The Judge Over Your Shoulder. The picture on the cover was of a very frightening judge—I do not know whether it was a caricature of myself. I do know that it was intended to convey to civil servants that what they were doing could be breaching the law, and judges could intervene to prevent this happening. This is exactly what judges are doing and have been doing for more than 20 years now. However, the judiciary can intervene only if a member of society or a public interest body makes an application to the court to seek relief.

I do not want to encourage litigation, and this can be avoided if the Government and officials comply with the law. To achieve this, it is healthy for administrators to know that there is a judge looking over their shoulder. However, the courts can perform their role only if applications are made to them. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult for judges to do this. This point was strongly emphasised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in a letter it wrote to me just two days ago which said:

“We’re here to stand up for freedom, compassion and justice in our changing times. We do it by promoting equality and human rights ideals and laws across the nation. Our work is driven by a simple belief; if everyone gets a fair chance in life, we all thrive.”